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Three years after filming ‘Rope’ Farley Granger and Alfred Hitchcock teamed up again in the film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s suspenseful first novel, ‘Strangers on a Train’. Hitchcock had apparently first approached Dashiell Hammett to adapt the screenplay but instead it was Raymond Chandler who ended up with the task; although not for long as the latter and the director did not get along.
The film opens with a taxi cab pulling up to a train station and a pair of flashy two-toned shoes emerging from the passengers’ side. Another taxi pulls up to the same station and a pair of conservative, dark leather shoes step out of the taxi. The viewer now observes both sets of feet making their way towards the train platform. The two-toned shoes (already suggesting a more flamboyant personality) is now seated in one of the train compartments. The dark leather shoes (denoting a more conventional personality) sits across from the former and while crossing his legs accidentally bumps the other man’s foot. Now these two strangers on a train have met. Mr. Flashy Shoes is Anthony Bruno (played with diabolical relish by Robert Walker) who instantly recognizes the stranger opposite him as Guy Haines (Farley Granger) an up and coming semi-professional tennis player. Anthony proceeds to engage Guy in a conversation that includes tennis as well as prying into Guy’s rumored romance with Senator Morton’s daughter, Anne (Ruth Roman). Guy, however, is still married to his unfaithful floozy of a wife, Miriam (Laura Elliott), who is pregnant with another man’s child. In fact, he’s on his way to his hometown of Metcalf to finalize his divorce proceedings. Guy becomes visibly (and understandably) annoyed with Bruno’s gossipy manner.
Bruno invites an unsuspecting Guy to his train compartment for lunch where he expounds on his idea of “criss cross” murders and proposes that he and Guy swap murders. Bruno would kill Guy’s wife thus freeing Guy to marry Anne Morton and in return Guy would murder Bruno’s wealthy and domineering (read the old man wants Bruno to go to work and be productive) father, thus allowing him to inherit the old man’s fortune and continue his idle, parasitic life while no longer under his father’s control. While Guy realizes that Bruno is a bit “off “ he doesn’t take him seriously, but he does finally give him enough of the willies that he humors him “Whatever you say Bruno” just long enough before he scurries out of his compartment at his stop in Metcalf, but not before forgetting his monogrammed lighter which Bruno pockets. At no point does Guy agree with Bruno’s murderous scheme but the psychotic socialite thinks they just made a deal.
Guy’s meeting with Miriam doesn’t go as he anticipated. Although she was the one who initially demanded a divorce, the shrew has now decided that it’s in her economic and social best interest to remain married to an increasingly successful tennis player rather than be a divorced and disgraced single mother with a child that’s not her ex-husband’s. In addition, Miriam is clearly a piece of work who enjoys making Guy suffer. Repeatedly cuckolding him isn’t enough; now that he’s over her and more than willing to grant her a divorce, she’s not about to let Guy achieve happiness with a Senator’s daughter. Their argument is witnessed by Miriam’s co-workers at a music store. Bruno later calls Guy (who had already forgotten about their train encounter) and discovers that Miriam is not going to give him the divorce after all.
Bruno now makes his way to Metcalf and follows Miriam to an amusement park where she’s gone later that evening in the company of two young men. When she and her two beaus ride the carrousel, Bruno joins the ride. He then follows Miriam and co to the Love Tunnel. Miriam gives him flirtatious looks not realizing he’s stalking her with murderous not amorous intentions. It’s deliciously eerie watching Bruno calmly eating from a small bag of popcorn as his boat trails behind that of Miriam and her friends into the Tunnel of Love. Once the boat exits the tunnel and reaches a small islet Miriam is separated from her boyfriends and comes face to face with her pursuer who then kills her. The audience sees Bruno strangling Miriam through the reflection of her eyeglasses which were knocked to the grass in the struggle. Bruno later shows Guy Miriam’s glasses as proof that he fulfilled his part of “the deal” and now it’s time for Guy to bump off Bruno’s father. Bruno now stalks Guy showing up nearly everywhere that Guy goes. We see the lone figure on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial ….a chilling reminder that he’s not letting him off the hook and expects Guy to deliver on his end. In one of the most superb and disquieting cinematic scenes we observe Bruno in the stands of a tennis match watching Guy, while everyone else in the stand is following the match, craning necks, their heads moving side to side while Bruno’s head never moves; he’s watching only Guy.
So why doesn’t Guy just go to the police? Remember that monogrammed lighter that he forgot on the train? Yeah, well Bruno has threatened to plant it at the murder scene and have Guy take the rap for Miriam’s murder…after all Guy had more than enough motives whereas Bruno didn’t even know her. The only alibi Guy has for the night in question is a university professor who was travelling in the same train compartment as Guy and talking to him but was so drunk at the time he now can’t remember whether or not Guy was on the same train with him the evening of Miriam’s murder. Guy is running out of options and Bruno realizes that he will not go through with the murder of the elder Mr. Bruno. The psychotic Bruno is now determined to plant the lighter at the scene of the crime and incriminate Guy. Guy is being closely tailed by two detectives as their main suspect. With the help of Anne Morton and her younger sister (played by Hitchcock’s daughter, Patricia) as well as a delay caused by Bruno dropping the lighter in the grate of a sewer, Guy is able to lose the detectives and reach the amusement park where he confronts and battles Bruno in one of the most unforgettable and thrilling cinematic fight scenes on a carrousel. Robert Walker is absolutely brilliant as the amoral, psychopath Anthony Bruno and one of Hitchcock’s most memorable first-rate villains only surpassed by Norman Bates. Sadly, Walker died only two months after the film opened. I find it unforgivable that the Academy Awards didn’t even nominate him for his stellar last performance. If you haven’t yet watched ‘Strangers on a Train’ you’re missing out on a marvelous classic thriller.